When the telltale brown paper went up on windows downtown, signifying a new business coming, some passersby started wondering: Who is crazy enough to open a store at such a dicey spot for crime in the middle of a pandemic?
The area, near a section of downtown that police call “The Blade”, started the year with a horrific daytime shooting, and went on to endure riots and pandemic closures to make for the toughest year in street retail since the Great Depression.
When the orange sign went up the other day, revealing it would be one of those Amazon Go no-cashier convenience stores, near Fourth and Pike, it was a bit like a flower — OK, a really rich flower — had peeked up through some rubble.
A downtown advocacy group said they believe it’s the first new storefront spotted since the coronavirus hit about 10 months ago.
“I think Amazon is saying with this that they can see through to the other side of the pandemic and all of the challenges Seattle is having right now,” said Jon Scholes, head of the Downtown Seattle Association. “There’s otherwise lots and lots of vacant storefronts.”
By his group’s running count, this horrible year has killed off 155 businesses in the downtown core alone — 82 restaurants, 48 retail storefronts and 25 other businesses have closed permanently, according to the association. The tally includes big retailers like Columbia Sportswear and downtown’s only full-service grocery store, Kress IGA, but doesn’t count the scores of plywood-planked shops that are just hunkered down, waiting for better days.
It may get worse. I went into the Pacific Place mall on Pine Street the other day and it was like a scene from one of those disease outbreak movies, where the hero shows up and everybody has perished but he doesn’t realize it yet. Loud happy Christmas music echoed through the mall’s atriums, with most of the stores either totally empty of customers, or closed.
That Amazon is choosing this moment to go all urban-pioneer and send up a flare of hope in Seattle is intriguing.
Relations between the company and its hometown city have hardly been smooth. At the corporate level, it’s widely thought the company is high-tailing it to Bellevue and elsewhere (though Amazon hasn’t said that). On the street level, during some protests, vandals in the crowds often seemed to preferentially seek out Amazon-branded things to smash.
“They have definitely been targeted,” Scholes said.
But here they are, plunking a store down in the epicenter of it all. Maybe it will be well-suited to pandemic times because purchases are recorded by cameras and an app, with no human contact. They call it Just Walk Out Shopping. Often the stores have only one employee on site.
One business owner on the block, who asked not to be named because he didn’t want the “negative attention” that comes with talking about Seattle’s problems, said the Amazon store is great news because it’s “a sign of life” for the neighborhood. But Just Walk Out Shopping is nothing new down there.
“It was shoplifters that ran off the Bartell’s and the IGA on Third, not the pandemic,” he said. “So that one-employee thing … they better be ready with lots of security.”
Tech has so dominated Seattle, and the pandemic, that it’s probably fitting our ray of hope would come in the form of an automated, cashless, unstaffed convenience store. So 2020 goes.
The other big downtown news is also a form of progress, I guess, but it’s a sad day as far as union people are concerned. The historic Seattle Labor Temple on First Avenue in Belltown, the main meeting hall, office space and drink-up spot for card carriers since the 1940s, has been sold to a developer for $11.4 million.
As this newspaper’s Ron Judd wrote a few years ago: “For seven decades, it has hosted some of the city’s most-passionate debates about unionism, local and national politics, civil rights and other matters of concern to Seattle’s decidedly left-leaning movers and shakers … Countless national politicians have given stump speeches inside these walls; civic campaigns have been birthed and buried; heartfelt arguments made for or against potential workplace strikes.
“For better or worse, people remember.”
I sure do. I covered a bunch of those political debates, and my own union, the Newspaper Guild, held tense meetings there when we were in a showdown with the Seattle P-I years ago.
The unions are said to be decamping to a building in Sodo, while the developer, Faul, plans a renovation and preservation of the landmark art-deco building.
All good. But then the Puget Sound Business Journal revealed what’s coming next: “The Labor Temple, long the gathering place of Seattle’s union members, is set to become a members-only social club for the business set.”
Of course it is. 2020 can’t get any 2020er than that.